We unravel the stories behind some of the Magnum photographer’s most iconic pictures.
France. St Tropez. The beach. 1964. © David Hurn/ Magnum Photos.
From Tube rides with Julie Christie to board games with the Beatles and a memorably wrong James Bond movie poster, discover the world of David Hurn.
Before settling on photography, David Hurn (b. 1934) was a keen sportsman and officer cadet who dreamt of being a vet or an archeologist. While his refusal to learn Latin ruled out a career requiring further education, it was a powerful visual moment that really made him reconsider his professional plans. Born in England but raised in Wales, Hurn was serving his time in the army when he came across a photograph of a Russian soldier buying his wife a hat in a 1955 issue of Picture Post magazine, an event that rekindled a tender childhood memory. Suddenly, 21-year-old Hurn remembered the day his father returned home from the war and took him and his mother to Howells department store in Cardiff to buy his wife a hat. The image was part of a photo-reportage on daily life under communism in Moscow, and the photographer was Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the founders of the prestigious Magnum photo agency of which Hurn would become a member in 1965.
In a time when the Cold War propaganda was depicting Russia as a land of hatred and violence where every man was an irrational Bolshevik, the photograph also made him realise that what the public was being told by the media didn’t necessarily correspond to the truth. Struck with an urge to explore and document the world for what it really was, Hurn set out to “photograph the equivalent of people buying their wives hats”. He knew that the fastest way to realise his dream of travelling the world as a photojournalist was to first take high-paying commissions. While commercial jobs were just a means to an end, working on film sets and fashion shoots allowed him to go on and do what he really loved. Today, Hurn’s extraordinarily diverse photographic output is celebrated with a new exhibition (and book) of his work from the 1960s. Bringing together the glamour of Hollywood with the mundanity of Britons at the seaside, eclectic hippie crowds, screaming pop fans, debutante balls and anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, the show offers a brilliant insight into the life and spirit of a decade, retold here through the personal memories of the legendary photographer.
Jane Fonda who starred in “Barbarella.”
September 1967. Rome, Italy © David Hurn/ Magnum Photos.
“This shoot came through Tom Carlile [a close friend, originally a LIFE magazine writer who worked as a publicist at a film company]. He was in Rome and he was having problems with the photography of Jane because she was being a bit difficult and kept vetoing all the pictures. Tom knew I got on pretty well with women so he phoned me and told me to get the hell over there quickly or they wouldn’t have any pictures. So I went over and I got on with her incredibly well and we just hit it off. She’s a bright, bright lady… I mean, she’s a very complex lady too. She does very strange things and she gets committed to them, but everything she does in life like on set she does with incredible gusto, enthusiasm and intelligence. This particular picture was deliberately shot for the covers of magazines; I was used to shooting fashion and Jane was always this very physical person, so it just worked perfectly. If you look at the full set of these pictures the extreme positions she could get in with these costumes were possible because she was extraordinary fit and flexible, so it was a very easy shoot to do, and very fun too; Jane has an enormous sense of humour, she knows how to take the mickey out of the public by making things look outrageously sexy but she always knew exactly how far to go. I mean, a lot of the pictures were really quite naughty. She was married to Roger Vadim at that time and he was a bizarre sort of person. Normally when there’s nudity or semi-nudity, the sets are closed but Roger Vadim wanted the opposite, he almost opened up a theatre. I think he was a bit of a voyeur, he quite liked people looking at his wife with no clothes on. In the book there’s a little series of him cutting a costume smaller and smaller, it looked as if he might have as well just cut the whole damn thing off! I can understand why it’s become a cult film…”
Isle of Wight Festival. Pop festivals bring out the wildest forms of dress sense.
1969 © David Hurn/ Magnum Photos.
“I was never drawn to the people playing the music, what always fascinated me was the crow. I was interested in seen how big it was, the type of dress code they wore, how they slept overnight, if they washed in the morning, how they ate… That’s why most of the pictures I shot at festivals have to do with people, either reacting or doing the stuff they have to do to stay there for four days. It’s the simple thing of trying to get over a feeling; photography is much more about emotions, so in this picture it was about capturing how a crowd of young people felt involved with a particular group that they like. I found it interesting to try to differentiate between the reactions that they’d give to different types of bands, and a lot had to do with waving hands like in this picture. So when Bob Dylan was playing the reaction would be very different from when The Who got up on stage, and I found those changes visually very interesting. It was a time of significant change and I was lucky to be in the middle of it. Things had shifted from a rather establishment approach to doing things to young people suddenly starting to dictate what was happening in music like in fashion and photography. The photographer was no longer an elitist, upper-classy individual; suddenly there were these lads from the East End of London taking the pictures, David Bailey absolutely broke the mold. And you had the same thing happening with fashion, where designers like Biba started to design very strange clothes and Vidal Sassoon making having your hair cut a sort of art form.”
G.B. ENGLAND. London. Bayswater. 1969 © David Hurn/ Magnum Photos.
“I happened to have a very large flat in London and so any photographers or friends from abroad would come to my flat and sleep on the floor, it was actually renamed the dosshouse – I mean, there’s nothing funnier than Rod Steiger sleeping on a mattress on the floor! One of the stories that I started to do in the 60s was called A Bit Of Flesh; it was to do with people who took their clothes off for a living, and it was really one of the first stories done seriously about this phenomenon. We had photographed the first strip club in London and all the people that were working there were either nurses or school teachers. Two of them were moving flat at the time and didn’t have anywhere to stay so I offered them my studio. One evening I forgot they were there and walked into the studio. I didn’t realise they were lesbian but there they were on the bed making love. Now, I come from a very chapel background and my first reaction to this was incredible embarrassment, but they just looked up and laughed. It was a wonderful thing for me to learn, this difference between uptightness and the reality of the people involved who couldn’t care a damn. This picture was taken the moment I opened the door, before they realised I was there. I always shoot pictures first and then think about what I’ve done afterwards. I’ve included the series in my book but magazines at the time wouldn’t touch it.”
Sean Connery, “From Russia with Love”. Picture used on the original posters.
1963 © David Hurn/ Magnum Photos.
“Tom [Carlile] phoned me up and told me they were doing the second Bond movie and desperately needed a lot of publicity on it. They needed a poster for the film and because they were trying to get it out quickly there wasn’t any spare time, so we had to shoot it during the night. The studio where the film was made was an hour and a half drive out of town, so we had to shoot it in my studio in London. I remember Tom came up to me that night and said ‘David, I don’t know what we’re going to do, we’ve forgotten the gun!’ So there we were with all the big guys from United Artists, Sean Connery and half a dozen of the girls from the film all ready to shoot and we didn’t have a gun. So I told Tom not to worry too much because I used to do target shooting as a hobby with a Walther air pistol, and James Bond uses a Walther PPK in the film. So I assured him nobody there would have known the difference, so I told him we were going to use the air pistol I had and then all the design people had to do when they’d come to make the poster was to cut the barrel down to its correct length. So we shot these pictures without anybody knowing that Mr. James Bond was standing there with an air pistol. Of course when they came to doing the poster they forgot to cut the barrel off! So when you see the picture he’s actually standing there with an air pistol, but what was funnier is that they used the same unedited picture for three reprints. What was even more amazing actually was that only one newspaper picked it up afterwards. Another incredible thing was that years later I still had the same pistol and I was just going to give it away to Oxfam and then somebody from Christie’s said they were going to have a sale of Bond memorabilia and asked me to put the pistol up for auction and to my total surprised it raised about £8000. Guess if I’d known that a few years ago it would have gone up for sale again for over £270,000 I would have held on to it.”
Actress Julie Christie on the Underground.
G.B, England. 1965 © David Hurn/ Magnum Photos.
“I never liked set-up portraits, with people looking all artificial and into the camera. So the great thing about this story I shot for Look magazine was that I was given a free hand to follow Julie around which was something nobody else was doing at the time. So besides this photo, there are pictures of her at home, others of her going and having a dress made, pictures of her in an art gallery looking at paintings… It was about being interested in her life rather than the superficiality that one tends to see most of the time. Julie knew what I wanted so she’d call me to ask me to go with her to the hairdresser or to the shopping mall. And that’s what I like the most about this picture, that it’s real. It’s a picture of a major movie star on the Underground in London which is unusual but tells you something about the sort of person she was, she didn’t go everywhere in limousine and I think that tells you much more about her than putting her in a studio and have her all made up.”
1964, St Tropez. France. © David Hurn/ Magnum Photos.
“There were two things that took me to St. Tropez that summer. One was that I was asked by Holiday magazine, which was the American magazine I liked the most, to do various stories with some great writers, one of whom was Irwin Shaw. He was going to go on a very expensive boat trip around the coast of the south of France and I was going to do the same trip by public transport, just to see how the two things fitted together. It also happened that Jane [Fonda] was in St. Tropez that summer and she was pregnant so I had planned to go down to stay with her there. When I took this photo, I was just sitting down with friends on the beach when somehow a picture seemed to come to my mind of a lady in a bikini walking up the beach. I realised that whoever I was sitting next to was looking at her, you can sort of conjure up what’s going on in his head. That’s what I think the best pictures do, they not only give you the place which you automatically get with photography but sometimes you find that there’s something else in the picture which is not really factually there but it’s like a third dimension, you can interpret it in your own way and I think this shot does it quite powerfully.”
The Beatles in the Abbey Road Studios, where many of their most famous records were made, examining the script of the film ‘A Hard Days Night’.
1964, London. © David Hurn/ Magnum Photos.
“The way this job fell through is fairly complex. One of my best friends was a writer for TV shows and he was part of an agency of comedy writers. One of the people that were involved in that was Peter Sellers, who did the The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film which was directed by Richard Lester. Lester was then asked to do the Beatles film for A Hard Day’s Night and he asked me to work on the film. I was just doing what I like really, they had the normal set photographer and I wandered on doing whatever I liked. Again, many of the pictures I shot were to do with the reaction of fans to the Beatles, rather than pictures of them. I remember that they were easy to get together if one staged the picture, but what I found strange was that I very, very rarely saw them as a foursome under natural conditions, I almost got the feeling that they didn’t like each other that much. This photo, which was taken in the Abbey Road Studios, is one of the few pictures of those rare moments. I feel like it’s the genuineness of the moment that made this picture so iconic. Working with the Beatles was an interesting experience mostly because of the extraordinary effect the band had on the public. You couldn’t go out in a car with them and stop, if you stopped the car was totally bombarded so we’d have to drive through traffic lights. It was so potentially dangerous because fans could really get hysterical and out of hand. To be honest though I wasn’t a big fan, I liked Family and The Mamas And The Papas far more than the Beatles. I was pretty friendly with Ringo, but John was off on a world of his own, Paul I found a little bit pompous and George spent all of his time trying to be the greatest musician in the world. The saddest thing which I think is actually quite funny is that we sometimes would go to my flat because nobody knew where I was and play Monopoly, but I have no pictures of us playing Monopoly because I was so competitive that all I wanted was to win!”
David Hurn: The 60s is at the Magnum Print Room from November 18 to January 29.
The 1960s Photographed by David Hurn RRP £29.95 / $49.95, published 23 November 2015 by Reel Art Press.
WORDS: Giulia Mutti